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Sam Warburton: Wales can now aim for the stars

After Six Nations glory and a Lions triumph built on Welsh talent, the captain tells Matt Majendie they are ready to claim Southern scalps ahead of the 2015 World Cup

It is Sam Warburton’s first game back after the British & Irish Lions tour and he finds himself at the bottom of a ruck, a mêlée of Cardiff Blues and Leinster bodies above him pinning him to the floor.

Wrestling for possession and position, he comes face to face with Ireland No 8 James Heaslip, who slotted into the Lions back row with Warburton all those weeks ago. The pair momentarily exchange smiles and what ensues is what Warburton calls “banter” but one suspects was infinitely rougher.

But neither of them can help the sense that now, despite being on  opposite sides, they are somehow eternally linked to one another after the highs of a historic summer win over Australia.

The Wales and Lions captain has that sense with others from the home nations, many of whom have talked of the dangers of a Lions hangover. But one suspects the 25-year-old will not be victim to such a playing predicament. “After the Lions, I had five weeks off, which was anything but rugby,” he says.

The majority of the time was spent with his fiancée, Rachel, but also his wider family, with whom he holidayed in Spain, as well as penning a book on his Lions exploits before returning to action against Leinster.

The book gives an insight into the fun of a Lions tour but, for all the achievement of a first tour win in 16 years, there is still a sense that Warburton is not completely satisfied owing to the fact that injury robbed him of the chance to lead his players in that final 41-16 battering of Australia.

“That third Test was just so hard,” he says, although he admits the pain of not competing has mellowed a little. “I still feel like that a bit, and I find it hard to take any credit at all. But I think that’s my natural, competitive self. Sometimes it takes the gloss off and otherwise I think ‘don’t be so daft’. I was Lions captain for seven or eight weeks, I played four games as captain and two Test matches. If someone had told me earlier in the year I’d be the Test No 7 and captain, I’d have given anything for that.”

It is eight years since Warburton received his first No 7 Lions Test jersey as a present from his parents, Jeremy and Carolyn, and ever since that moment he aspired to wear it for real. When he did so for the first Test in Brisbane, he laid it out on his hotel bedroom and could not stop staring at it.

In all, he has eight Lions jerseys – one for each half of rugby played – but he has kept just one from the first Test, the others handed out to his family and his former secondary school.

At times, Warburton is still a little baffled he even made it on the tour. Earlier last year his confidence was at its lowest-ever ebb and, injured in the opening Six Nations defeat to Ireland, he struggled to force his way back into the Wales side.

“What I found hardest was the negative press,” he admits. “I didn’t think I was playing badly but that stuff gets to you. It got me down. When I came back for those last two Six Nations games, I decided to throw everything at it.”

In his mind was winning the Six Nations Championship but those 160 minutes also doubled up as a last-ditch audition both for a Lions place and the captaincy. “After our losing streak in the autumn, no one expected us to do it but we did, but it was a tough time,” he says.

Not necessarily the toughest – he marks that as his red card in the last World Cup – but Warburton believes his confidence has never been lower in his career as it was earlier this year. “I’m usually such a confident person so I can’t believe it got to that situation,” he says on reflection. “I will never let that happen again, I’ve learnt from the experience. I’ll make sure I always believe in myself.”

This week, Warburton is back in the Wales fold as captain under Warren Gatland once more. He insists there will be no Lions talk among the players – “I think that’s disrespectful to the players who didn’t make the tour” – although he has readily reminisced with the likes of his close friends and fellow tourists Dan Lydiate, George North and Leigh Halfpenny.

Wales’ record against southern hemisphere visitors to the Millennium Stadium is unenviable. They have not beaten the touring Wallabies in the autumn in seven attempts and have managed just one victory against South Africa, whom they play on Saturday.

“I think this is our best chance ever to do it,” says Warburton, with the conviction of a captain adamant his side will not suffer the same slump as last autumn. “That’s the thing with a slump, you have no idea whether that will happen. Put it this way, we’re definitely not planning on it. But we’re confident.”

How good can Wales be? After all, the Lions squad was packed with 15 Welshmen, 13 of whom featured in the Test series. Warburton is loath to project too far forward into the future.

“I think it’s hard to look ahead two years on to the World Cup,” he says. “Particularly as in the last World Cup year, we were only fourth in the Six Nations and then made the World Cup semi-finals. OK, we at least aspire to get to the semi-finals again like every team, and we definitely want to achieve more – to reach for the stars.”

Whether Warburton is still playing in Wales by the time of the World Cup is another matter. The lure of France and the higher earnings of some of his fellow Welshmen out there obviously appeal. But for all that, the national captain is keen to stay put.

“I think the Wales captain not playing in Wales probably sends out a bad message but, by the same token, I didn’t know until this squad was announced if I would still be captain or if I will be in the future,” he says candidly. “But that’s not really an excuse. I need to do what ensures I can play rugby as long as I possibly can. I’ve told Cardiff and the WRU that I plan to stay put but I haven’t had an offer yet. But there’s been interest from elsewhere.”

Among his fellow squad members to have played in France is Mike Phillips, who was recently sacked by Bayonne for reportedly turning up drunk to training.

Warburton paints a different picture of a player made out to be a miscreant by his most recent club. “I’ve never seen that side of Mike,” he says. “I think he’s a great guy to have around, a real team player and he’s always a big game player.”

The same can be said of Wales’ captain.

‘Lions Triumphant: A Captain’s Story’ by Sam Warburton is published in hardback on Thursday. Follow @schustersport on Twitter for  updates on the book-signing tour